Category Archives: Beer and travel

A bicycle made for brew: from London to Holland via beer

By Liz Dodd

Covered in mud, bleeding from thorn scratches, and with pins and needles shooting along the suffocated nerves in my hands, I sat back in a French ditch and brushed melting hail from the can of beer I’d brought with me in my bicycle pannier from London.

It promptly exploded, probably because shortly beforehand I’d thrown the pannier, bike and myself down a sheer embankment to escape the motorway I’d cycled along since Dunkirk ferry port. When best friend Miranda and I decided to embark on our first foreign cycle tour, to pin it to our favourite Belgian breweries, and to wild camp along the way, we’d expected more Sideways and less Saving Private Ryan.

Before we set off a few people said to me how much they wanted to do a beer tour of Belgium by bike. The country’s excellent cycling infrastructure and sublime beer make perfect sleeping bag fellows. And after we’d ironed out the creases and got into the rhythm of touring, it was glorious – even in March’s freezing conditions.

Our route took us the 250 miles from Aylesford in Kent to Sluis in Holland and back again, with stops at some wonderful Real Ale pubs on this side of The Channel; and on the other, Westvlteren to try the best beer in the world, Rodenbach’s brewery to try more of the best beer in the world, and the beer halls of Bruges.

I’ve included a map in case anyone else wants to recreate the trip or try a leg themselves. Miranda and I are not pro-cyclists (I commute about 100 miles a week by bike), as you’ll quickly realise, although we are pro-drinkers, and we didn’t find this ride a struggle at all. After we’d figured out how to use a compass and what the French sign for “motorway” was.

For details on our bikes and gear scroll to the end

Aylesford to Thurnham (6.8 miles)

An immediate hiccough as we got tired after six miles and stopped for the morning/afternoon/night/following morning in the absolutely glorious Black Horse Inn (Thurnham, Maidstone ME14 3LD; 01622 737185; around £80 for a double)

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Sat alongside the Pilgrim’s Way, which I’m sure is a lovely cycle path in summer but is muddy Hades in winter, its 18th century bar was thick with the smell of woodsmoke and the hop bundles that covered the ceiling.

A better place to neck pints of session ale, amend your ferry booking and rain down curses upon Google Maps I could not imagine. Onwards!

Thurnham to Dover (39 miles, with pushing)

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Refreshed (ok, hungover) we blithely forged on along the Pilgrim’s Way, which shortly turned out to be a BMX track and No Way whatsoever. We escaped to the peaks and troughs of the A20 across a field whose primary crop was bicycle-clogging clods of clay, then on to the roaring fires and well-kept pints of the White Hart pub in Hythe (71 High St, Hythe CT21 5AJ; 01303 238304).

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A race along the seafront through Folkestone brought us to the suburbs of Dover and the foot of the White Cliffs, where I took a wrong turn then insisted we climb a strange iron staircase to the start of a 300ft trail up the cliffside.

Friends, I will gloss over this part, except to say that I had gone so totally insane by the time I had dragged my 40kg of bicycle and equipment slipping and sliding to the top of that fucking cliff in the rain and the dark that I survived only by singing “you are my lucky, lucky star” over and over again like Ripley in Alien. Then amended the ferry booking.

Once you have sensibly taken the road up the hill, and not the mud slide, make sure to visit The Royal Oak (Capel-le-Ferne, Kent, CT18 7HY; 01303 244787). A wonderful little pub at the top of Dover Hill, which we cycled blindly into after scaling Dover Mountain and setting up camp in a nearby field, the staff are friendly, the darts are loud, and the ale Real and very well kept. It’s also mindbendingly cheap (£2.40 a pint) and serves £2.50 lunches.

Dover to Dunkirk (15 miles, plus motorway) (and ferry)

Dawn broke as rudely as the frost on our tent and we rolled downhill to Dover, where M got a puncture and it transpired we hadn’t booked the second bike onto our much amended ferry. No matter! After an administrative kerfuffle, three minutes to sail’o’clock found us crunching full-speed up the ramp to supportive cheers from the Dfds crew, and into a nook between the parked HGVs.

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We entered Dunkerque on the motorway. A non-driver, I mistook the hard shoulder for a cycle path, and spent seven miles waving to horn-bashing lorry drivers before I realised M, behind me, was not, in fact, whooping for joy, but was actually screaming: “we’re on the bloody motorway”.

Around three miles later the cycle lane shoulder folded into itself over a bridge ahead (“FUCKING STOP!”) and, faced with either the SOS phone or a steep drop into a farmer’s field, we opted to fling our luggage, bikes and selves down the embankment into what transpired to be a river. On its banks, in a hailstorm, we failed to dry and sat enjoying the cans of Purity‘s new black ale, Saddle Black, which I’d brought with us for – er – just such an occasion.

Testament to the greatness of this beer, which was conceived on a bike trip hopefully better planned than our own, was how much we enjoyed it in our sticky trench. A nutty, pitch-dark ale, it rolled dark fruit and coffee; thick like a stout but lifted by a bit of fizz (although that might have something to do with rolling down an embankment) and zingy hops.

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Dunkirk to St Sixtus Abbey (22 miles)

I don’t know whether it was the night in a hostel in Dunkirk that revived us, the novelty of better weather or the sudden, luxuriant cycling infrastructure, but we gambled into Belgium alongside quiet fields, dipping into farm shops for supplies and gaffa-taping baguettes to our cross bars.

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St Sixtus Abbey (Donkerstraat 12, 8640 Vleteren, Belgium; 00 32 70 21 00 45), one of six Trappist breweries in Belgium (the others being Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort and Westmalle), and home to The Best Beer in the World, Westvleteren 12, sits among copses in flat Flanders fields. It’s well signposted and, far from being the crumbling, Gothic artifice I’d imagined, is tucked behind tall redbrick walls accented with white statuettes. The visitors’ centre (where the bar and shop are) is sharp and clean and glossy; it serves the monks’ beers and snacks including abbey cheese.

Of course, we went straight for the WV 12. We’d almost hoped that it wouldn’t be the best beer in the world, that we’d hipster ourselves out of enjoying it. But oh, it’s good. So good it invented its own class of beer – the Abt, or darker, quadrupel – and still dominates the league tables for that style. It’s rich and sweet but not overpowering; bursting with Christmas fruit and spices and chocolate; but so well-balanced it leaves you with just a ghost of mouthfeel and a massive thirst for more.

Which is unfortunate, because it’s 10 per cent and the abbey is in the middle of nowhere amid poorly lit country roads. Be warned: if you drive there nominate a designated driver and then buy them a whole case of the WV12 (which you can buy in the gift shop and supposedly nowhere else in the world) to make up.

In the interests of JOURNALISM we drank our fill of the 12 then camped (passed out under some tarp) in a nearby animal shed thing. We woke with dawn to shake the tent free of some asbestos that had fallen on it in the night and set off for Roeselare – home to Rodenbach.

(Coming in part two: Rodenbach; In Bruges)

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Gear Geekery

Liz (I) rode a 2011 Ridgeback Speed hybrid (really!), with handlebar extensions, handbuilt wheels from The London Cycle Workshop (Mavic rims, Deore hubs and 36 spokes); a Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyre on the back and mystery tyre on the front; a Tourtec pannier rack (rear) and two 20L Ortlieb panniers. She slept in a Wenger Chasseral sleeping bag, on a Neo Air X-Lite women’s Thermarest, inside a Vango Banshee 300 tent. With cooking gear (meths, a single Trangia pan, an Aeropress and a beer can stove) and clothes (merino everything) I reckon I was carrying 15-20kg plus bike.

 

Miranda rode a Marin Muirwoods MTB with a Tortec Expedition Pannier rear rack, two Altura Arran 36L Panniers and handle bar extensions. She slept in a Snugpak Softie 9 Hawk bag on a Thermarest Prolite Plus, also inside the Vango Banshee 300.

Hair of the Dog: What we learned at Brewdog’s 2015 #PunkAGM

It’s been just over a week since Brewdog’s 2015 AGM. The hop-haze has finally lifted. My ears have stopped ringing. And I can be in a room with alcohol again.

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Note: not all mine

The ubiquitous craft beer company‘s AGM isn’t your average AGM, as I explained to my photographer, Will, when he asked if this was a tie and chinos or a jeans kind of event.

Back in 2010, the company started trading B-shares in an effort to raise capital. Its investors were, by and large, craft beer fans, drawn in as much by discounts and bonuses as brand loyalty. The scheme – dubbed Equity for Punks – was a roaring success and, in five years, has raised over £6M.

But as a business, what do you do when the majority of your shareholders are beer-lovin’, mohawk-sporting, tie-eschewing punks? Turn AGM on its head and hold a festival instead.

Hopefully not holding out for an actual AGM for punks

Hopefully not here because of a terrible misunderstanding about the title #PunkAGM

We arrived in Scotland – courtesy of Brewdog, who invited us and covered the trip – early Saturday morning, the slate-grey streets of Aberdeen glowing in the sunshine as we landed, slingshot (with Scotland’s angriest taxi driver) around the outskirts of town and on to the colossal warehouse that would house the event.

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Inside punks, PR and press – drinks in hand – quickly got down to business; the annual report that opened the day’s tastings. And oh, how beleaguered Tesco must wish its shareholders were punks. Brewdog’s founders, James Watt and Martin Dickie, crossed the packed arena floor to raucous cheering, through a forest of raised glasses full – or, in most cases, part-full – of the beers that they would reveal had underpinned a year of unprecedented growth.

It’s testament to Brewdog’s army of punks – of which there were 14,500 before the AGM – that the 6,000 or so of them in attendance (the maximum the event could host) not only showed up early enough for the address, but listened with rapt attention. I didn’t begrudge James and Martin the six-pack they had on stage with them – tie-wearing corporates their shareholders are not, but that doesn’t mean they’ll take bad news well.

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But of course, this is Brewdog; arguably one of the craft beer Renaissance’s most overwhelming success stories. There was no bad news. The company’s turnover for 2014 was up a staggering 64 per cent, to £29.6M. Their gross profit – up 66 percent – was £11.5M, and with overheads of £7.8M, ended up with a net profit pre-tax of £3.7M. Brewdog has grown by 71 per cent in the last three years. Behind it all? “We’re committed to making as many people as possible passionate about craft beer,” James explained.

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Brewdog comes under fire, particularly in the London bubble, for its aggressive marketing, its appropriation of punk, and doing too well, too quickly. A few years ago it was criticised for the inconsistency of its ubiquitous IPA, Punk. But is this a case of the classic, British distrust of success?

Speaking personally, I’m a fan of Brewdog’s brash, hoppy beers, which speak to my palate. I like that I can get them everywhere, from Sainsbury’s local to Wetherspoons, in Oslo via Florence.

I fell for them even harder at the AGM when I ran my stock feminist sort-of-trick question, “do you brew beers specifically aimed at women?”, past Alex Myers, Director at Manifest, who handle Brewdog’s PR, between drinks.

“All our beers are for everyone,” he said, immediately, and with conviction. 10/10 answer. Not a whiff of, “why, of course, we have a 3 per cent cherry-flavoured beer, and one that tastes like chocolate…”

Finally, you can’t deny Brewdogs’ fans’ passion – made manifest in the whopping number of shares sold – be they the punks, or the two Scots on stage clutching their cans of craft.

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Brewdog has done a comprehensive round-up of the AGM announcements here. Our top lines…

US EXPANSION

Brewdog, which incredibly still still brews out of one, soon-to-be-expanded site at in Ellon in Aberdeenshire, is expanding production and heading stateside, with plans to open a 42-acre sister brewery in Columbus, Ohio. Dog Bless America, indeed.

NEW BEERS

Born to Die, an imperial IPA with a life-span of just 35 days, was our beer of the weekend, so great news that it’s going to be made marginally more widely available. The plan is to brew two batches that will appear in 660ml bottles and be available on keg. The beer we tried (that will die on 4 July!) was extravagantly hoppy, delicious and citrus-fresh. Will swears he was sweating hops the next day. BD also announced its first Equity Punk-inspired brew, a 6.5% chocolate and coconut stout, and a collaboration with Beavertown called “Coffee and cigarettes”, which is exactly what those members of Team Beavertown aboard our early morning return flight to London on Sunday looked like they needed.

NEW BARS

Brewdog also announced a slew of new Brewdog bars, including (deep breath) Leeds, Glasgow, Berlin, Brighton, Oslo, Rome, Leicester, Brussels, and, most importantly, because it’s at the end of my road, in Angel, Islington as well as London’s Soho, which will apparently also have a beer-themed sex shop (Bd’s PR didn’t explicitly deny this, so… you heard it here first, until you didn’t…)

FULL OF SPIRIT and IN THE DOG HOUSE

Finally, BD also announced that they would be opening a craft distillery, promising “we are going to smash the world of spirits forever”, and shared some tantalising details about its planned hotel, The Kennel in Ellon, to be the first completely beer-focused hotel in the UK, with beer on tap in every room.

“2014 was ace,” James told us, a broad understatement.

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THE BEERS

With the AGM down, it was on to some serious drinking, with not a watercooler or peppermint tea in sight. In our experience, the layout this year worked well and queues for the half-dozen or so bars were short (except for the food pop-ups outside – we legitimately queued for 50 minutes for a burrito). The beer wasn’t breathtakingly cheap – £10 bought you six tokens, and most beers (served in pints, 1/2s, 2/3s and 1/3) cost two or three tokens – so at £2.50-£3 a third a hair’s cheaper than London prices for some, but a generous £2 a pint for others (like Punk IPA).

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Team ICIP drank our way round most of the bars (why do you think it took so long to write this post?); our top tips:

Born to Die 04.07.2015: Just glorious. Fresh, US-hops, with zingy grapefruit notes. Full-bodied hop punch. Did I mention it’s hoppy? Basically my dream beer.

Dog D: At 16 per cent, this hefty imperial stout was not a beer to mess with. Or drink at the end of the night, as I did, which probably explains why I had to have a nice lie down on the floor of the departure lounge the next morning. Aged in oak barrels, it exudes chilli, black treacle, vanilla and whiskey notes. For 28 hours after you drink it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Jack Hammer: Another hop bomber, this one a more gentle 7.2%. Looking back, it’s probably a bad sign that my tasting notes rendered this “gentle” by mid afternoon. No matter! More US-hops here, palette-meltingly bitter, also more widely available than the beers above. Might start a petition for Sainsbury’s to start stocking this one.

Ballast Point, Sculpin Habanero: There were beers other than Brewdog, and this stole the show. I can only really claim to have had a half pint of this, because so bowled over was I by the seedy habanero kick – unlike any other chilli beer I have ever tasted – that I offered a mouthful of it to everyone I encountered just to see the looks on their faces. Extraordinary.

THE BANDS

Turns out that after a few pints of double-digit strength beer, I both recall the words to and enjoy many more Idewild, Twin Atlantic and Pulled Apart by Horses songs than I realised. Leaping around like a lunatic to Scottish emo was the perfect end to a fab day. But, this is a beer blog, not a music blog, so this entry is mostly an opportunity to showcase the one good photo I took with Will’s camera.

SO PROUD

SO PROUD

THE REST…

We only attended one tasting session – with Brewdog’s own brewers, and of lovely Dog D – and it was great. You do have to fork over precious beer tokens to attend, but it’s well worth it; in fact, apart from booking the subsequent week off, making more of those sessions is pretty much all we’d do differently next year.

Because, Dog willing, we’ll be back, and we’ll see you down the front.

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Bite-sized beer breaks – a new series!

Beer was the last thing on my mind when I recklessly decided to undertake a series of £100 weekend citybreaks. It was demoted to the hinterland beneath “where will I sleep?” and “will I be able to walk to and from the airport?”

These citybreaks are an attempt to prove that travel shouldn’t just be for the wealthy. Us penniless, deskbound 9-5ers should be able to break out too. My £100, all I could spare per month, would have to cover everything: flights, transport to and from the airport, accommodation, food, museum admissions… etc. Because anyone can nab cheap flights between Tuesday-Thursday, I decided to make it more difficult: each break must fall within a weekend. I returned from 36 (admittedly boozeless) hours in Gothenburg, Sweden, in late January, with five pence left in my budget. Giddy with success I reckoned that, if I could make it round one of the most expensive cities in Europe with money left over, I could afford the odd delicious half on the next holiday. Particularly when that next holiday was in Cologne. Bitesized beer breaks are super-speedy top tips for drinking on a budget in Europe. For more budget travel tips and stuff to do when you’ve only got a couple of Euro to rub together, see Liz’s columns in The Independent on Sunday (starting in April). Rhinegold Cologne in west Germany is best known in beery circles for kölsch, a phenomenally light speciality lager brewed to very specific requirements laid out by the Köln (Cologne) Brewery Association. According to the Kölsch-Konvention a beer can only be called kölsch if it fulfils strict purity requirements, among which are that it is brewed in the city, has a gravity between between 11 and 14º Plato (4.4%-5.2%), is filtered but slightly hoppy. Kölsch’s history is interlinked with that of its parent city. Just two of Cologne’s 40 breweries survived the Second World War; subsequently it fought off other popular German beers to peak at 370 million liters in 1980. Thirteen breweries in Cologne currently produce kölsch, of which we visited two of the most popular – Gaffel am Dom and Früh. Gaffel am Dom For the full (if admittedly touristy) Kölsch experience, visit Gaffel’s cavernous brewhouse in the shadow of Cologne’s magnificent cathedral (the Dom). If you just want to drink you need to head to the bar on the far side of the restaurant – tables are reserved for dining only, we discovered after about thirty minutes forlornly trying to flag down the phantom-like beer ninjas, or Köbes, who make tall, frosty glasses of the stuff appear next to you every time you finish your drink (unless you cover your glass with your coaster – top tip!). IMG_20150221_173558 The brewery was founded in 1908 by the Becker Brothers and is best known for the top-fermented Gaffel Kölsch still brewed in its cellars. DSC_1005The beer, which comes in at a mere £1.23 per 200ml glass, is crisp, fruity and breathlessly light. Because it is served in such small glasses it is always ice cold, and comes clear, pale yellow with a ghost of a head. Every new glass is recorded on your coaster, which makes this an excellent option for thrifty and thirsty travellers. As long as your maths doesn’t let you down. We got through 12 glasses over the course of one Bundesliga match, which cost us just over 20 Euro. The German guy sharing our space at the bar told us that it doesn’t count as a night out in Cologne unless you get through 22 glasses, but we were happy to chalk this one down as an evening in and have clearer heads for a Sunday morning stroll down the Rhine. FrühCentury-old Früh‘s main brewpub stands a stone’s throw from the cathedral (handily five minutes from Gaffel am Dom, if you’re time-constrained. IMG_20150222_181943Früh is much drier and more crisp than Gaffel’s slightly fruity kölsch, with a more pronounced cereal-malt taste. We stood by tables in the brewpub’s vaulted, medieval entrance and watched the phenomenally efficient workflow that goes into filling every waiter’s “garland” – a round holster – with tall, thin glasses. It pours crystal clear and slightly-straw yellow, like kölsch should. The beer is .10 cents more expensive per glass – 1.80 euro – than at Gaffel. We preferred the latter’s long, noisy beerhalls to Früh’s darker cellars – but if you’ve got time it’s definitely worth the short trek across town to compare the two. A beer tour of Cologne is eminently achievable on a budget. The booze is cheap and delicious and, thanks to the brilliant waiters and ever-updated coaster recording system, you can keep track of your budget. Food in the brewpubs we visited was also reasonable; although on one memorable occasion that was admittedly just a really, really big plate of chips. Best of the rest: If ICIP had time, we’d have liked to try Sion and Peters Brauhaus Try it at home: Thornbridge make a delicious Kölsch-style beer (they have to call it that because of the purity laws) called Tzara. Brewer Rob Lovatt talks through the process of making it in a blogpost for insidebeer.

Next time: Brno, in the Czech Republic

After that: Copenhagen in Denmark. Any tips? Tweet us @icipints or leave a comment

[Edited 26/3/15: Früh’s brewery did not survive the Second World War, as originally suggested in this article]

– ED

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brewer

Sometimes the Twitterverse throws you opportunities too good to pass up.

In October 2013, ICIP and the – at the time, very new – Little Brother Brewery started following each other. We said hi, felt a pang of disappointment when we realised they were based over the North Sea in Norway, and made some wistful comment about coming to visit if we were ever feeling flush.

Eight months later, we had booked a Scandinavian jaunt which was going to include a stay in Oslo, Little Brother’s hometown. A few emails later, and we were on for a visit.

littlebro1Founded in mid-2013 by brothers Andrew and Cameron Manson, the brewery has just been granted its production license and is now officially the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo. “I was brewing in uni in Brisbane in the laundry with my brother and some flatmates,” Cameron reminisces. “When I moved to Europe, I got back into brewing. When I first moved to Oslo, my neighbour gave me a bottle of homebrew which really impressed me. So I decided to pick up the hobby again.”

lilbro5The ball is just starting to get rolling for Little Brother. “We got our first order the other day, actually,” Cameron tells us, proudly. “We have three orders now! It’s Oslo beer week next month and we’ll be selling some kegs to the organisers, Grünerløkka Brygghus.” They will also be releasing a bottled beer which will be sold in local pub, Cafe Sara. “We’ll be hand bottling, and we’re using 750ml bottles because you pay a tax per bottle in Norway. You have to pay a recycling company because they are then responsible for cleaning away all the rubbish. So you choose big bottles to get the most out of each one. If you have a container over 4 litres then you don’t pay, so the key kegs are going to be important.” It sounds like a lot of red tape for a small company starting out. “It’s costly and it takes time, but getting the kegs will help a lot. That’ll save time, then we can just do bottles for restaurants.”

The brewery still isn’t the day job for Cameron, who manages a bar at an upmarket Oslo hotel. “I plan the roster so that I can work in the brewery. It’s hard work, but now we’re getting a few orders in, and we’ve got our license in place, it’s working out.” With interest in the brewery picking up, he is hopeful that he may be able to focus more on Little Brother as time goes on: “maybe in a year’s time I can even think about this being a full time thing.”

lilbro3Despite coming from London, home of very expensive craft beer, we’re still reeling from the prices of beer in Norway. “Ah, sure, it’s pricey, but then wages are pretty high here as well. If people weren’t profitable they couldn’t make a good business – everything’s costly, but then again, I think minimum wage is about 140NOK (c. £14).” We’re stunned by this – we’re pretty sure the minimum wage is about half that in the UK. No wonder we’re finding everything more expensive in Scandinavia. The other issue is where the beer can be sold. You can only buy beer up to 4.7% in shops (and at limited times). Any alcoholic drinks over this percentage are sold exclusively at the government-owned Vinmonopolet. “I’m going to brew this wheat beer to about 4.6% so I can try to get it into the supermarket,” says Cameron. “I’d go higher if I could, but then it would never make it into the shops. The IPA will never make it into a supermarket!”

Despite the costs and the bureaucracy, craft beer seems to be booming here, maybe even more so than back home. “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” Cameron agrees. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out. The one I go to has gone from two to thirty employees in two years.” On our trip, we saw a huge range of styles available – everything from European pilsners through to a Cassis Tripel that nearly finished us off (thanks, Nøgne ø). Is there a particular style that sets Norwegian hearts racing? “Definitely IPA. The first beer that we’re going to release is an IPA; we’re playing it safe there. I think the core range will be the IPA and a wheat beer.”

lilbro4But Little Brother clearly won’t be content to stick with the basics. “I’m trying the wheat beer four ways; the same grain bill, brewed with local honey and then with a different yeast for each one. I’ll dry hop with a couple of different varieties of hops. In one I’m going to try adding the dried skins of coffee beans. It doesn’t really taste like coffee, it’s more of a tea flavour. So I’m gonna add that with the dry hops and leave it for seven days.” And Cameron has other plans up his sleeve. “I’m also going to do an imperial coffee stout – I’ll coarse grind the Mexican coffee I’m using, then bag it and then just stick it in like dry hops. This will be mashed at a high temperature and there will be lots of residual sugar, then I’ll referment it with champagne yeast in the bottle so it’ll have a sweetness and a malt backbone that’ll handle the acidity. The coffee has dark berry flavours, so it’ll go well with the chocolate and coffee flavours from the beer.”

lilbro1So where does Cameron get his inspiration for such creative brewing? “I do surf the net a lot. If I like a beer I’ll look for some sort of clone recipe to try and find out what hop or yeast is used. I try a lot of different beers too; lately I’ve been trying single hop ales because you really get the profile of the hops without having to brew with each one, and really understand flavours.” Cameron’s passion for brewing is obvious. “I always remember the first time I tried beer was in the pub with my dad, and I hated it. I thought: ‘I’ll never like beer’. Now I realise that it was just shit beer, and I still don’t like it now!” It seems unlikely that a young adult growing up in Norway would have the same problem. We’re staggered by the choice here.

Despite the brewery still being very much in its infancy, Little Brother has big plans for the future. “Right now we’re looking at getting some funding to get some large equipment – we want two conical fermenters, a palette of kegs and a palette of bottles so we can really start operating. What we’d love to aim at a beer cafe, similar to what Mikkeller has done. We’re going to do a beer club here at the brewery as well, hopefully. We’ll get fridges, and we already have a hop-back so we can serve beers through the fresh hops.” And what of worldwide domination? “Well, my brother is back home. He’s an architect and photographer and he does all of our design and the website. In the distant future we’d like to open up down there. Craft beer is becoming bigger there now too.”

littlebro2It’s been exciting to witness the birth of a new brewery which is already doing some really innovative and exciting things with their beer after just a few months, and with such great plans for the future. We can’t wait to see what Little Brother come up with now they have their production license – we can only hope they’re prepared to ship overseas!

Want more? You can read more about our boozy trip around Denmark and Norway.

– PS

Skål! – our boozy Nordic saga (part two)

If you missed part one, which focusses on our boozy experiences in Denmark, read it here!schous

Beer pretty much slapped us in the face from the moment we got to Oslo, with excellent beer almost literally within grabbing distance: from our hotel window we could see the remains of the Schous Brewery just over the road. Founded in 1800 and closed down in 1981, this is still home to the Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri in an atmospheric cellar under what’s left of the old premises. After nearly having a heart-attack at the price of beer in Norway (even higher than in Denmark, as if it was possible), we tucked into a Joca Blonde (5.5%) and a “Female of the Species” Single Hop Nelson (5.1%), both delicious. It was interesting to see what was popular with beer fans over the North Sea, and we were surprised to see a couple of beers by ICIP favourite Thornbridge as well as Brewdog on the blackboard behind the bar.

Our next beer experience came courtesy of a random Twitter exchange from back in October 2013, when ICIP and Little Brother Brewery started following each other. At the time, we weren’t expecting to ever get the chance to visit them, so when we found out we’d be in town just a few weeks after they got their production license, making them the smallest commercial brewery in Oslo, everything fell neatly into place.

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We were welcomed to the microbrewery by co-owner Cameron Manson (the eponymous little brother – big bro Andrew is based in Brisbane, where they hope to expand to in the future). We don’t want to spoil too much, because we’re planning on dedicating a whole post to our trip to Little Brother, but it was clear from chatting to Cameron that the Oslo beer scene is flourishing just as much as it is back home in London, with new microbreweries popping up and plenty of experimentation: “Apparently there’s a new brewery opening every month in Norway,” he told us. “Even the homebrew shops have expanded massively since I started out.”

After our tour of the brewery we took the opportunity to ask for some local advice, and Cameron gamely drew us up a list of bars to sniff out for good beer. Fortuitously, one of them was very close to our hotel (what an excellent choice of accommodation this was turning out to be!). This was Cafe Sara, a pub full of trendy young things, friendly staff, some interesting offerings on the taps and a well-stocked beer fridge. It ended up being a messy night.

The damage:

Single Sara – Christianssand Brygghus and Cafe Sara collab (5.7%)
Pensjonisten – Bryggerhuset Veholt (5.8%)
Odin’s Tipple – Haandbryggeriet (11%)
Osen Lager – Tonga Gardsøl (6%)
Cassis Trippel – Nøgne Ø (9.5%)
Humlekanon – Haandbryggeriet (7.5%)

humlekanon nogneo

We’re not entirely sure how we got home.

We tried to lay off a bit for the next couple of days (visiting whole galleries of Edvard Munch is quite harrowing enough in itself without being hungover as well, thanks), but still managed a trip to another of Cameron’s recommendations: Smelteverket.

Situated in artisan food court Mathallen (think modern Nordic Borough Market and you’re getting warm), Smelteverket boasts “Norway’s longest bar”, with no less than twenty windows looking out over the Akerselva river. They also stock a range of Norwegian beers on tap and in bottles, and we had a try of a couple of beers by local brewery Grünerløkka (Løkka/crow White IPA, 6%, and Thorvalds Red Batch #17, 5.1%) and Haandbryggeriet (American Pale, 4.5%). We were very happy nursing these beauties until it was time to jet off to our final Scandi destination: we were Bergen-bound.

bryggenBergen is an absurdly beautiful place. As we stepped off the bus into Bryggen, we could hardly believe our eyes. The town is nestled between seven hills and seven fjords, and the busy harbour is lined with colourful, higgledy-piggledy wooden buildings.

Being that much further North than we’re used to, it was still light pretty far into the evening, which made the temptation to sit outside a bar with a beer and a blanket even more powerful. So we could hardly believe it when we realised that there was a very swish, very new-looking craft beer bar at the end of the road from our hotel.

7fjellWe were sold the moment we walked through the door at Una Bryggeri & Kjøkken, which was so new the builders were still drilling and hammering upstairs, and I had to use the men’s loo because the women’s wasn’t plumbed in yet. This trendy bar will be brewing its own stuff very soon, but in the meantime, we tucked into a Porter by Voss Bryggeri (7%) and a Walkendorff Amber Ale (6%) by the very local 7 Fjell Bryggeri.

It turns out that good beer is not at all hard to find in Bergen. We stumbled across Pingvinen (“Penguin”) in the sleepy backstreets, where we nearly collapsed under the weight of probably the freshest and most delicious prawn smørbrød in the world and glasses of Lervig Aktiebryggeri Hoppy Joe (4.7%). We also enjoyed a quiet drink in the quirky Kafe Kippers, set in an old sardine canning factory, where we tried Waldemars Mikrobryggeri Hveteøl (4.7%) and a Vossa Pale Ale (6%) by Voss.

But the real highlight of our trip was yet to come.

You can’t visit Bergen without going on some sort of excursion out into the nearby fjords. We had planned ahead and were booked into a day-long trip which would – hopefully – give us a taste of the incredible scenery Norway has to offer.

vergenWe would begin with one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world: from Bergen to Myrdal, in the mountains, where we would board the Flåmsbana. This special railway is the steepest standard gauge railway in Europe, and has been running since 1940. This would take us down from the snowy mountains and into the tiny village of Flåm, nestled at the end of the Aurlandsfjorden. There we would board a boat for an epic five and a half hour boat ride through the Sognefjord and back to Bergen.

While this was the cause for much excitement, we were not anticipating beer to play a part of this day. Unless we dropped back into Una after we got back, of course.

jumperAfter about 200 photos and much gawping, we arrived in Flåm. Just to  emphasise this: Flåm is tiny. Dwarfed by the comically huge cruise ships that park up in the fjord, it basically offers a few hotels, a slightly tired museum, a couple of sad cafes and several shops selling Scandinavian knitwear.

Oh, and a mind-blowing microbrewery and pub.

We thought we were hallucinating when we saw a sign for the “Ægir Brewery and Pub”, and definitely started to question our senses as we rounded the corner to see the Viking-esque wooden building, complete with dragons carved on the roof.

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My friends, it was a practically spiritual experience.

aegir6Inside, away from the chilly mountain air was a 9-metre floor-to-ceiling open fireplace with pelt-covered seating around it. The seats were made of roughly hewn tree stumps. The tap handles were made from antlers.

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I wanted to weep for joy. I began to curse the fact that I only had a hour and a half before I had to board a STUPID boat to go on a STUPID INCREDIBLE ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME FJORD TOUR.

Founded in 2007 by Norwegian Aud Melås and American brewer Evan Lewis, the brewery has been steadily expanding over the last few years and has also opened a distillery. They won Norwegian Brewpub of the Year three years on the trot, and we’re not surprised.

aegir5We stayed as long as we physically could without missing our boat, sampling the following:

Ævenue (6% saison)
Sumbel Porter (4.7%)
Ægir IPA (6.5%)
Rallar Amber Ale (4.5%)

The range of beers on offer was fantastic – the brewery’s website lists styles as diverse as barley wine, Scotch ale, bock and blonde amongst its regular, year-round selection.

We found ourselves lured to the bottle shop even though we knew full well that our cases were already stuffed with Nørrebro bottles from Denmark. “I’ll just leave some clothes behind”, I insisted, clanking my way down the gangplank and onto the boat.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Checked out of our hotel, our Lonely Planets exhausted, and with just a couple of hours to go before we had to catch the bus to the airport, we bedded down back at Una. We finished our trip with 7 Fjell’s Svartediket Black IPA (7%) and a We Love Wheat Collaboration between Lervig and Nøgne Ø (7.9%). I reflected, as I supped my delicious, wallet-destroying Norwegian beer, that we were ending our holiday by doing exactly what we hadn’t really anticipated doing at the start of the trip – just kicking back with a couple of beers.

dutyfreeInspecting our boozy swag on our return to London (yes, we did buy more delicious beer in duty free), I marvelled at how beer had shaped our holiday, and how it had accented every high point. From our chance meeting with Arizona Wilderness in Mikkeller Bar and the mindblowing tasting menu at Nørrebro, through to the tour of Little Brother and our Ægir epiphany in Flåm, it truly had been a boozy Nordic saga; a real adventure.

The Scandinavian countries are often touted as the happiest in the world. Having checked out the beer, we think we understand why. Skål!

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– PS

Skål! – our boozy Nordic saga (part one)*

*Wanted to call this “Boozin’ with the Moomins”. Found out Moomins are Finnish. Did not visit Finland. For helvede!

Mr Pip and I aren’t really very good at holidays.

Well, more accurately, we’re not good at relaxing holidays. We’ve never done a beach holiday together, never visited a spa or willed away multiple hours in a café watching the locals. Our holidays are usually planned with almost military precision: armed with maps and Lonely Planets we storm our way through capital cities and tourist spots, leaving a string of museums, stately homes and art galleries in our wake. Our recent trip to Scandinavia is a case in point. We were there for ten days and managed to clock up, by our estimates, over 60 miles of walking (no mean feat given that one of those days was entirely sedentary on trains and boats in the Norwegian fjords).

While I’ll admit to being the driving force behind this, Mr Pip is very much the Lieutenant to my Captain. We make good travel companions because we enjoy a similar – unbalanced – mix of doing stuff and chilling out (i.e. sleeping off all that walking). I find just immersing myself in being somewhere completely “other” relaxing in itself – being able to leave all thoughts of work and the washing and the fact that the front door is sticking behind me.

Basically, what I’m getting at here is… I didn’t really factor beer into my holiday before we went. I wasn’t planning to sit in the bar all day. I thought about visiting Hamlet’s Castle and seeing some Viking boats and seeing the fjords, but despite beer being a massive part of my life, we only really got as far as booking a dinner at a brewery-cum-restaurant in Copenhagen for our anniversary before we whizzed off to Denmark.

And that’s what made the boozy wonder that was our Scandi trip all the more special.

nyhavn

Our first taste of Scandi beer came in the form of a Tuborg Green (4.6%), sitting in the sun, with a plate of herrings next to the canal in Nyhavn, Copenhagen. You couldn’t get any more Danish if you tried. But this was exactly the type of beer experience I had been expecting – and not getting excited about. The beer was stock lager, the type of stuff I purposefully do not touch at home. I noticed that most of the restaurants and bars we looked into seemed to have the same, ominously green Tuborg and Carlsberg taps. “Oh well”, I thought, “I can deal with soft drinks and the occasional gin and tonic this holiday”.

Then Nørrebro Bryghus came out of nowhere and rocked our world.

norrebro glassSituated in what The Guardian once likened to “the Brixton of Copenhagen”, Nørrebro Bryghus is one of many trendy bars and restaurants popping up in this part of Denmark’s capital. Launched in 2003, the brewery has always had food and beer matching in its sights, marrying the rising popularity of both Scandi food and craft beer: “The brewhouse politely reminded the Nordic foodies something that Danish gastronomy seemed to have forgotten,” trumpeted their website, “that the best drink in combination with Nordic flavour is often the wonderful Nordic beer.” They also claim that they could very well be “the best beer restaurant in Scandinavia”, so we didn’t really think we could pass this one up (especially since we didn’t fancy taking out a second mortgage to eat at Noma).

Initially drawn in by their five-course tasting menu with matched beers, we arrived early for our reservation and started off with a drink in the downstairs bar. Set against a backdrop of the brewery itself, which is open for visitors’ inspection, the bar was bustling and cosy. The beer menu immediately got our hearts racing. American brown ale! Bock! Barley wine! We quickly began our descent into heavenly beery oblivion.

It was a night to remember.

norrebroglassesOur food and beer matched menu was exquisite; exactly what we had dreamed of when we had read about “New Nordic Cuisine”. It was so good, I accidentally ate all of my first course before I thought to take a photo. We also spent ages waxing lyrical to each other full-mouthed across the table about being served what literally appeared to be clouds made out of mustard.

The menu was as follows:

  • Cauliflower with mushroom purée and wild garlic paired with Çeske Böhmer Pilsner (5%)
  • Gravlax with hops, asparagus, nuts and mustard paired with New York Lager (5.2%)
  • Slow cooked beef chuck, potato purée and smoked jus paired with Ravnsborg Rød (5.5%)
  • 3 kinds of Danish cheese with sour sweet and crunchy “goodies” paired with Maharaja Double IPA (7.6%)
  • Lemon curd and wheat beer mousse with honey and oat crisps paired with Lemon Ale (3.5%)
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Our minds well and truly blown, we staggered back to our hotel ready to totally reassess Denmark’s beery offerings. As if by magic, our perception filters reset themselves. Yes, Tuborg and Carlsberg were ubiquitous. But we began to spot names like Nørrebro and Herslev Bryghus popping up on menus in restaurants, and even found bottles for sale in local supermarkets. We found a microbrewery, Bryggeriet Apollo, right in the heart of touristland, next to Tivoli, and an American diner offering a range of both local and international brews. Beer came back into focus for us, and before long we were google-mapping frantically in an attempt to find one of the Mikkeller bars.

“Gypsy” brewer Mikkeller (Mikkel Borg Bjergsø) doesn’t run a brewery in the strictest sense of the word, and has instead been traveling around brewing collaboration brews with other breweries since 2006. Initially created with friend Kristian Keller, hence the name, Mikkeller brews Noma’s house beer, exports to over 40 countries and has bars in San Francisco, Stockholm and Bangkok. A search for Mikkeller on Untappd now brings up a mind-boggling 700+ results. So you can see why we were keen to sniff out one of the bars in city where it all began.

mikkellerbar After a particularly long day of walking we ended up at the original Mikkeller Bar on Viktoriagade, thirsty and expecting great things. Tucked away in an area with a distinctly Shoreditch-y vibe, the bar was minimalist and trendy, and had a pleasingly massive blackboard listing 20 beers on tap, as well as a huge bottle menu.

mikkellerglass“Checking out the bar” inevitably ended up being three rounds and we tried Vesterbrown Ale (5%), Beer Geek Bacon (7.5% oatmeal stout), Vesterbro Wit (5%), Cream Ale (5%), Beer Geek Vanilla Shake (13%) and 10 (6.9%), between us – several unusual, all delicious. Thank goodness for relatively small craft beer portions.

We also had a mad social media moment in Mikkeller Bar – Mr Pip had a notification from Twitter informing him that several people he followed had started following Arizona Wilderness Brewing. He looked over to the bar to see brewers Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware, who were still in town after the previous weekend’s Copenhagen Beer Celebration. Before long we were engaged in happy, boozy conversation. Beer really is an international language, and its speakers are the friendliest in the world.

We had held off the inevitable visit to the Carlsberg Visitors Centre until our final day in Copenhagen. A little outside of the city centre, we kept finding excuses to put it off, and our beery epiphanies with the likes of Nørrebro Bryghus and Mikkeller weren’t making the prospect of free Carlsberg any more appealing.

carlsbergbottles1So we were pleasantly surprised by our very enjoyable visit to Carlsberg. Blighted by memories of sipping from lukewarm green cans at grotty university house parties, it was easy to forget that Carlsberg has a long and interesting history. The visitors centre is housed in the original brewery which dates right back to 1847, and guides you through the brewery’s story, from J.C. Jacobsen’s stagecoach journey from Munich with his precious brewing yeast stored in a hatbox, through to its takeover of Tuborg and climb to 4th largest brewery group in the world. The museum, spread through the historic buildings, is impressive, and supplemented by the largest collection of unopened beer bottles in the world… over 22,000 at last count. We thoroughly enjoyed looking out for familiar labels… and finding some interesting international versions of the Carlsberg brand. The centre also boasts working stables where their horses – now only used as “brand ambassadors” – are kept.

carlsberghorses

When we saw that our ticket had included two free drinks, we have to admit we weren’t that enthused. I even considered passing up on the offer. But after a bit of a walk from the train station and a wander around the complex we quite fancied a drink, and we approached the bar with some trepidation. It was with pleasant surprise that we saw that there were a few more interesting beers on offer.

We took the opportunity to try a Tuborg Rød (4.3%), a seasonal dark lager only brewed in May each year. While this wasn’t exactly Mikkeller, it was substantially more flavourful than my dim memories of those green cans all those years ago. Perhaps I had been wrong to dismiss Carlsberg out of hand for all this time.

jacobsenThis feeling was cemented by our second freebie. On the recommendation of the bartender we went for the Jacobsen Original Dark Lager (5.8%), brewed to the oldest recipe in the Carlsberg archives, from 1854. Jacobsen is Carlsberg’s “upscale” arm, founded in 2005 and making some more varied styles such as wit and dubbel. We were impressed with the Dark Lager, and a little upset that their offerings only came in 750ml bottles in the shop (as our luggage was already stuffed with Nørrebro bottles by this point).

We had come a long way from our initial disappointing glass of Tuborg in Nyhavn. Denmark had shown itself to have plenty to offer in terms of beer, and we wished that we had done a bit more research before arriving. But time was against us, and Denmark’s cousin to the north, Norway, before us. Surely, we thought, Norway can’t top this.

We were wrong. So wrong. And you can find out just how wrong, in part two.

bottles1– PS